Schuette sues barge firm for Line 5 strike, fluid leak

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is suing an Escanaba-based company whose boat allegedly dropped an anchor this month that ruptured a pair of power cables and dented Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, his office said Thursday.

Schuette’s office followed through on a Tuesday public notice and filed the lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court. The attorney general argues the Clyde S. VanEnkevort, owned by VanEnkevort Tug and Barge Inc., dragged an anchor along the bottom lands of the Straits, striking Line 5 and separate transmission cables that leaked nearly 600 gallons of mineral oil insulation fluid on or around April 1.

The incident caused the release of a “hazardous substance” that potentially could hurt aquatic life and the lakebed, the attorney general said. The Coast Guard has said there has not yet been any sign of harm to the straits or aquatic life.

“This incident raises red flags as to how an anchor drag like this could happen. We must hold VanEnkevort responsible for the clear violations of state law,” Schuette said in a statement. “Protecting the safety and security of the Great Lakes must continue to be our top priority so we can ensure an incident like this does not happen again.”

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman has said nautical maps warn against anchor drops in the area but there is no specific regulation against doing so.

VanEnkevort spokesman Darrell Wilson, a crisis response specialist with MTI Network, said Thursday that the company has no further comment. On Tuesday, Wilson confirmed VanEnkevort is actively engaged in an ongoing Coast Guard investigation.

“An underwater power cable was reported to be damaged on April 1st and a tug and one of our barges were among several vessels which transited the area,” Wilson said in the Tuesday statement. “We are fully participating with all relevant authorities as they conduct the investigation. Due to the ongoing investigation it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Coast Guard officials have not confirmed the alleged anchor strike and declined to discuss details of their ongoing investigation. But sources familiar with the Coast Guard probe confirmed last week to The News that an anchor strike was responsible.

In the lawsuit, Schuette seeks the following relief from VanEnkevort Tug:

Require Van Enkevort to take protective measures to ensure another such incident doesn’t recur. They should include “installing specific safety equipment on its vessels” and training its employees.

Mandate the Escanaba-based firm pay an unspecified civil fine for causing the release of “hazardous fluid” into the straits.

Force Van Engkevort to pay for potential damages involving its alleged violations of state law and common law.

Require the company to repay the state for the costs of inspecting, monitoring and enforcement involved with the Line 5 dents and two damaged power cables owned by Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co.

While the attorney general’s lawsuit is a good move, Michigan should be having a broader discussion about what everyone — including Line 5 owner Enbridge Energy and power line owner ATC — should be doing to prevent future harm to the straits, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

American Transmission might be able to use a less harmful fluid to insulate its power lines, though there are questions about the toxicity of the 600 gallons of mineral oils that leaked into the straits, Clift said.

The alleged anchor strike shows the bottom of the straits “is an incredibly risky place to have” Line 5 and the power transmission lines, he said.

“This anchor strike is the wake-up call that we’re moving way too slow,” Clift said. “It tells people that we need to be moving much quicker.”

Schuette said last June he wants to create a timetable for shutting down Line 5 but hasn’t named a target date. Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley want to decommission the oil and liquid natural gas twin pipeline if studies show it is feasible to build a replacement tunnel for the pipeline under the floor of the straits without causing ecological harm.